Problems With Immersion

In David Leonard’s article “Live In Your World, Play In Ours”, he talks about the problem of racial deployment in video games, and how games must be careful not to push racial stereotypes or enforce racism in their attempt to be more diverse. He starts with Grand Theft Auto and the reinforcement of racism that can take place in video games, and then moves on to sports games to talk about digital “black face” in relation to the virtual athletic body.

After reading his summary of Grand Theft Auto, I was both surprised and disgusted. I remember playing various Grand Theft Auto games when I was younger, but most of the time me and my brother would just go around stealing cars and messing around. However, the actual plot of Grand Theft Auto 3 goes as follows: you play a white male “thug” in the Leone family who is helping battle various gangs of color to take control of the city. Though the Leone family commits crimes like the other gangs, they are shown in a much more positive light and all of their behavior is seen as justified, while the other gangs are seen as unnecessarily violent and aggressive. Not only the gang members, but people of color throughout the game are heavily stereotyped based on their race, and the majority of innocent citizens are white.

What caught my attention even more however, was Leonards analysis of sports games and how they allow video game players, who are mostly white, to enter the stereotypical black male body. Though I have never played the game myself, I never considered this a problem while watching my brother play 2K. Players have the option to create their own characters if they choose to do so, and I assumed the men playing the game would create characters of their own race. And I assumed that the reason black characters were more skilled in Street Ball games was due to most famous basketball characters being black. However, looking back on it now, I can see the problematic nature of having black athletes be overly aggressive and stereotypical.  

     Though I am not sure whether or not I fully agree with Leonard’s argument about this being a digital form of “black face”, I do agree that having white players immerse in a game where they play overly athletic, aggressive black males is a bit insensitive. If he is right about sports games being a form of “black face” however, I question whether a game can portray the “positive” parts of being a person of color without being a sort of black face or fetishization. In other words, are the only correct forms of immersion ones in which someone can feel the suffering of another group? No examples come to mind of a game that portrays what is positive about being a person of color, though games such as Assassins Creed show struggles of slavery and oppression. For example, would a game set in a country in Africa before slavery and colonization, one that shows the interesting parts of their culture, still be considered “black face” to Leonard, if most of the people playing this game are white?

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One thought on “Problems With Immersion

  1. To your point about a game set in a country in Africa before slavery and colonization — Assassin’s Creed Origins is a game in which the player controls a black Egyptian character named Bayek. Although this game has some depictions of slavery in ancient Egypt, the vast majority of the game is spent exploring its advanced civilization. I don’t think that a white person playing this game would be putting on a form of digital black face, since they would be immersing themselves in a game world that encourages them to explore a stunningly detailed representation and positive portrayal of ancient Egypt. Perhaps the context in which a white player plays as a black character should be taken into consideration when evaluating whether such an action constitutes digital black face?

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